The toppling of Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi by rebels has left the African Union sidelined, members divided and anger high at a Western-led bombing campaign, analysts say.
The AU stands in a contradictory position: several African states have individually acknowledged the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), but the pan-African bloc has shirked from recognition itself.
Misguided efforts for talks between the rebels and Kadhafi — plans rejected by rebels and ignored by the West — damaged the bloc’s credibility, said Aloys Habimana, of Human Rights Watch.
“Failing to realize that Kadhafi’s killings undermined his legitimacy and made him better suited for an international tribunal than for a negotiating table was a terrible mistake,” Habimana said.
“The AU leadership was torn between the option of doing the right thing, and that of standing in solidarity with a prominent peer whose acts clearly stood in stark contrast to the AU’s own principles and values,” Habimana added.
Several African leaders may have been keenly aware of their own internal domestic divisions, avoiding discussion on revolution when they themselves are often decades-long serving presidents elected on shaky grounds.
Some leaders, such as Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, found allies in Kadhafi based on their anti-Western stance.
“The AU reacted quite slowly to the crisis for many reasons,” said Paul-Simon Handy, from South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, noting Kadhafi had regularly contributed substantial funds to the AU.
“Not least was because some heads of state were embarrassed by their close personal relationship with Kadhafi,” Handy added.
But it was Western air raids that infuriated many on the continent, who felt NATO attacks have gone “far beyond the spirit, if not the letter, of the UN Security Council resolution,” said Tom Cargill, of Britain’s Chatham House.
“African leaders were infuriated by NATO’s snub,” Handy added. “They felt their advice and role had been entirely ignored.”
“So often they have been pressurised by the international community to find African solutions to African problems,” added Cargill.
“Yet when such a problem arises, the Western nations came in and sidelined them.”
Instead of protecting civilians, the NATO raids are seen by many as effective regime change, “perceived as Western military intervention of neo-colonialist powers,” Cargill added.
It raised anger even in governments whose roots lie in revolutionary change, who might otherwise be expected to welcome a popular rebellion by the Libyan people.
“External observers might find it nonsensical, but there was a real feeling of the need to stand up for African solidarity,” said Cargill, noting the intense anger from South African leaders, who overthrew apartheid rule.
While the fall of Kadhafi and the loss of the generous funds he provided has shaken the AU, it is hoped the bloc can learn from the crisis, said Habimana.
“Institutions like the AU should exist to safeguard peoples’ aspirations, rather than serving to protect tyrants rightly challenged by citizens in search of freedom and the rule of law,” he said.
“With Kadhafi’s fall, Libyans have a unique opportunity to build a better country based on human rights and the rule of law — the AU’s role in assisting the Libyans to tap that opportunity will be critical,” Habimana added.
Relations ahead between the NTC and the AU will be tricky, but both sides will have to work with each other, added Handy.
“The AU will have to work hard to prove to the Libyan authorities it is legitimate after its ties with Kadhafi,” he said.
“But it is in the vested interests of both sides for good relations and to move forward.”